The Courageous Leader Behind Bars

Sam Blog

I entered a state prison recently and my mind was racing. Why were all these people here? What had they done? Didn’t they know better? Surely this could never happen to me, right? It’s very easy to make assumptions about people, their situations and their choices. Without all of the facts and without having been in their situation we just don’t know what they have dealt with or why they have made the decisions that they have.

I wasn’t entering the jail as a resident but rather as a guest. The warden had invited me to tour the facility. Not sure what to expect, my mind was certainly highly engaged as I passed through security and walked through the first locked door. But, when I entered a cell block pod and heard the door close behind me it all became very real.

The pod that I was being shown at the time was a faith based pod. It was an opt-in pod. Inside were rows upon rows of bunk beds. Forty eight prisoners in all were living in this space. A waist-high wall separated the living area from the showers, toilets and sinks. There was what looked to be a small 19″ television on the wall. There were a lot of people in a relatively small area. It felt confining.

The warden asked if someone would tell me about the facility, the pod and what life was like. A inmate named Shane stepped forward and volunteered to share with us. Shane said that he had been married for 18 years but was now divorced. He had owned a large trucking business and at one time had 450 employees. Shane said that he had made a bad decision and that’s why he was in prison.

Shane also shared that he felt that being in prison and in his pod was an opportunity to change, to get better. He was emotional as he expressed that he was thankful for being there and what he was experiencing. He was discovering his faith, what he believed and gaining clarity about how he wanted to live his life. I didn’t expect him to share that sentiment. I saw the sincere look in his eyes as he spoke to me and I felt the emotion he shared and immediately felt connected to him. It was a powerful moment.

Shane was being a Courageous Leader™. He stepped up to talk. The first characteristic of leadership is to step up. He did that and did it great. Shane was courageous and transparent. He shared openly about his past, his mistakes and what he believed. He took responsibility for his actions. He sought to get better. He showed his repentance. He showed his remorse. He showed gratefulness for the opportunity to be in the faith-based pod program. All of this happened in 5 minutes.

It’s easy to expect a “certain” type of person to be in prison. It’s easy to categorize prisoners by race or socioeconomic status. This well spoken man shattered what would be the expectation of many people.

Shane taught me a lot and that is what leaders do. Leaders are always teaching. They don’t necessarily set out to teach, but they do; every single time you’re with them.

Shane proves that leadership isn’t positional. “Inmate” isn’t directly connected to leadership on any organizational chart. I had myths and stereotypes about what type of people are in prison. I was wrong. People make mistakes. We all do.

What assumptions about people may be holding you back? Do you inspire the people around you? Are you being a Courageous Leader?

I want to have a cup of coffee with Shane on my turf one day. And, I look forward to what I’ll learn from Shane, the leader, in that meeting.

Who knew you’d find such courageous leadership in prison.